It seems as if in every client meeting lately, I’m getting questions about emerging market (EM) stocks. Many investors are looking for that magic bottom and are wondering if it’s time to step back in, while others are wondering if we’ll see further declines due to commodity weakness and eventual Federal Reserve (Fed) tightening.
These questions come as EM stocks have had a rollercoaster year, with valuations beaten up by concerns about China’s economy, slowing global growth and lower commodity prices, just to name a few of the headwinds facing developing markets.
According to Bloomberg data, by the end of the third quarter, the MSCI Emerging Markets Index was down 15 percent year-to-date. However, since then, emerging markets have reversed course, with the index gaining roughly 5 percent since the last day of the third quarter, according to Bloomberg data as of November 9. Of course, this ride has been rocky as well, with the index rallying following news implying a Fed delay, like the weak September jobs report, and then losing steam in early November after upbeat October jobs data increased expectations of a December hike.
So, is this the beginning of an EM rally? Or are the gains since the third quarter just a temporary bounce? I believe it’s too early to call a recovery. A look at what has caused the volatile advance helps to explain why.
First, a little primer on what typically happens to EM investments when a Fed rate rise is imminent. When markets believe the Fed will raise rates in the short term, investors generally add exposure to U.S. assets as they search for higher returns and potentially stronger currencies, rather than explore EM investments and their generally higher risk.
In contrast, when Fed action is delayed, as has been the case this fall, flows have generally gone in the opposite direction, based on Bloomberg data. Investors increase risk exposure for potential return, adding exposure to EM equities and other risky assets.
This is what seems to be the catalyst for the fourth-quarter EM rally. Unfortunately, as EM data accessible via Bloomberg testify, it hasn’t been driven by signs of economic improvement, firming inflation or rising earnings. Rather, it’s been primarily a reaction to the Fed’s delay in September, and the belief that the Fed would not raise rates until 2016.